Revolution or civil war? The battle of narratives in Syria

The main division in Syria is not sectarian or regional; it is simply between the regime as an overarching establishment and its opponents who are revolting against its totalitarian rule.

The regime’s network cuts across sect, class, ethnicity, region and ideology; even the clerical establishment is split along these lines. The regime even has its own Islamists, its own tame opposition and a history of manipulating jihadi and salafi groups and infiltrating them in Iraq and Lebanon. Throughout over forty years of its rule, the regime and its security establishment has penetrated every organization and community and nurtured within them a number of individuals who gained power through their association with the Baath party and the intelligence services. These become the power brokers and act as intermediaries with the state apparatus.

They can get people in and out of jail as well as get them jobs or get them fired, facilitate businesses or close them down, and they maintain control through an atmosphere of fear and mafia-style extortion and blackmail. Very often such individuals rise at the expense of the more traditional leadership and can hold the whole community to ransom. 

It is too simplistic to just label what is happening in Syria a sectarian civil war; rather the opposition to the regime is often more intense within each sect or community, between those who hold power in each context and those who are revolting against it. When the regime says that weakening it will result in sectarian civil war or tens of Afghanistans, this should be interpreted as a threat rather than an observation.

The importance of narrative goes beyond mere semantics; each component of the narrative has underlying policy implications.  If we call the events in Syria ‘a revolution’ by all components of the population against a regime that is killing its people, then the implication is that the people need protection; whereas if we call it ‘a sectarian civil war’ then the implication is that all sides have to stop the violence and sit around the table to resolve their differences and state institutions need to be preserved to restore law and order. One description supports the revolution’s narrative, while the other lends credence to that of the regime.

The battle of narratives in Syria can be encapsulated as that between two tales from two cities: Paris and Geneva, where two parallel conferences were held in the last week of January 2013. These two meetings broadly represent two opposing narratives with little common ground and with each having its international backers both in policy circles and in the media.

The Geneva meeting was organized with Scandinavian support and brought together several of the so called internal opposition groups and parties, most prominent of which were the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change and the Building the Syrian State Current. The conference also formed the Democratic Civil Alliance, a coalition of like-minded groups calling for a peaceful solution through dialogue. The Paris conference was organized with French support and included the two main opposition groupings outside Syria: the Syrian National Council and the National Coalition headed by Moaz al-Khatib. The main difference between the two meetings is that Geneva called for stopping the violence and for dialogue with the regime whereas Paris called for arming the opposition and rejected any idea of dialogue with the regime. But there are also other significant differences in the narratives.

The Geneva narrative claims to represent the silent majority of Syrians whose priority is to stop the violence and enter into a dialogue to implement reforms. They call on the international community to pressure Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to stop arming the Islamist rebels who have hijacked the Syrian revolution and turned it into a civil war.  They are against foreign intervention and interference and call for a Syrian solution. The narrative also dismisses the ‘Friends of Syria’ meetings as irrelevant and portrays the exiled opposition (i.e the Paris group) as detached from reality on the ground and intransigent in their demand for regime change and refusal to dialogue.  They oppose what they call the ‘mantra of Assad must go’: for them it is not all about Assad. They portray the ‘rebels’ as Islamists and terrorists supported by undemocratic regional powers and call for a democratic solution which could entail Assad remaining in his position and running for elections in 2014. They also portray the regime as strong and say that violence will continue forever leading to the total destruction of the country unless such compromise is reached which maintains state institutions intact. Most of those who attended Geneva are still engaged with the regime, travel freely in and out of the country and appear on Syrian state TV as the accepted interlocutors.

The talking points of the Paris narrative are almost diametrically opposed to those of Geneva.  For them what is happening in Syria is a popular non-violent revolution in line with other revolts in the Arab Spring. It is non- sectarian, not a civil war and has been deliberately transformed into violence by the regime’s brutal reaction to peaceful protests. They call for international intervention to protect the population and failing that for arming the FSA to enable it to topple the regime. They reject any dialogue or compromise with the regime other than for negotiating the practicalities of its departure. They instead advocate for international justice to step in and indict Assad and his circle for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The Paris narrative plays down the importance of Islamists in the revolution and claims that their numbers are no more than 5-10% of the fighters and have been inflated by the media. In the words of Moaz el Khatib, the Coalition president, the international community is obsessed with the length of beards and ignores the images of children dying. They claim that the regime is weak and hanging on to power by bluffing and thanks to the lack of support that the revolution gets from the international community. 

From the perspective of the Paris narrative, that of Geneva is similar to that of the regime and is nothing more than a palatable translation of Assad’s speeches and interviews.  The regime portrays the revolt as a foreign conspiracy led by the participants of the Friends of Syria meetings; it calls for an end to intervention and interference in its affairs by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia who support and arm the rebels. Those rebels are terrorists and Islamists and Syria is a secular state fighting Al-Qaeda. The regime issues statements that are very thinly veiled threats and that the Geneva narrative conveys as patriotic concerns; like when the regime insinuates through leaks and retracted statements that its weapons of mass destruction would fall in the hands of Al-Qaeda or Hezbollah if the regime is threatened. The rebels should lay down their arms and surrender otherwise the violence would lead to the total destruction of the country or tens of Afghanistans. The regime is ready to enter into dialogue but with the patriotic opposition that is calling for ‘legitimate’ reforms (i.e the Geneva group).  In fact the regime is also ready to make a deal with the armed rebels themselves but refuses to recognize either the existence of a revolution or the legitimacy of the Paris group, which it describes as foreign agents conspiring with Syria’s enemies. The regime claims to have developed a package of reforms that it wants to discuss in a national dialogue and Assad is ready to stand for elections and let the people decide whether he stays or not. Assad projects a calm and confident face stating that the regime is strong and will defeat the conspiracy.

On balance, the internationally dominant narrative on Syria, whether in the media, policy circles or the think tanks; is tilted towards that of Geneva and the regime’s positions.  The Geneva narrative is also more consistent with official UN and international policy expressed in the Geneva plan of 2012 calling for dialogue and a political solution. The international policy debate and media coverage on Syria is mainly driven by the trauma of the  experiences of Iraq, Afghanistan and that of the ‘war on terror’ which the pro-regime talking points constantly refer to in order to reinforce the view that it is indispensable, irreplaceable and that beyond it is chaos of unimaginable proportions.

The international media and many policy circles seem to fall for much of the regime’s tricks, whereas the Syrians who have lived with these tricks for generations have reached a stage where they are immune to them. Another important element of support for the regime is an extension of the opposition to the war in Iraq. Whether in policy circles, think tanks or in the media; those opposed to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, tended to favour engagement with the Assad regime. They projected the policy of engagement and assistance with reform as an alternative to that of intervention and regime change. Hence their position needs to include the argument that the Assad regime is reformable and that results can be achieved through engagement and dialogue: and they are still trapped in this narrative, unable to break out of it lest they vindicate the other side of the debate over the Iraq intervention.

Thus the internationally dominant narrative is seen, for many reasons, as constantly undermining the revolution’s or the Paris narrative and indirectly supports that of the regime. It does so by emphasizing the divisions in the opposition, the Islamist dimension and the strength of the regime. Media coverage also emphasizes the negative elements when it comes to the SNC or the coalition.  A good example of that is when Moaz el Khatib resigned as president of the coalition, this was described in most of the coverage as throwing the opposition into ‘disarray’ -whereas in reality it was him playing international politics, resisting pressures. The end result was him occupying Bashar el Assad’s seat in the Doha Arab League summit and being given a star role at the meeting. What should have been portrayed as normal politics and success on the part of a credible party was instead described in catastrophic terms that undermine that party. The net result of such an example is to reinforce the idea that there is no alternative to the Assad regime.  

Official statements from the US also often undermine the opposition and reinforce the regime’s narrative of sectarian civil war dominated by Islamists. The constant reference to WMD and the fear that these weapons would fall ‘in the wrong hands should the regime fall’ sends the message that the US is more concerned about the regime falling than about Assad staying in power and killing his people.  Most statements indicate that the US and many of the declared opponents of the Assad regime are unable to see beyond him, and sometimes unwittingly support the regime’s narrative. In fact the international community is itself divided, and the politics of Washington, Brussels or the UN seem far more complicated than that of the opposition in Syria.

It is significant, however, that on the international level, the Paris view of rejecting dialogue with Assad is mainly supported by those who were the most engaged with him before: France, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. President Sarkozy, Prime Minister Erdogan and Shaikh Hamad the Emir of Qatar were his most ardent supporters and personal friends and together with Saudi Arabia they played an important role in rehabilitating Assad between 2008 and well into 2011. Their engagement with him continued even after the revolution started and went on until they came to the conclusion that he was just playing games to gain time. Their opposition to him takes on an almost personal hue. For them, his narrative has lost all credibility: they can see through it.  Assad’s power thus very much depends on the credibility of his own version of what is happening in Syria and the way forward that he offers.

The narrative of the revolutionaries on the ground is much closer to that of Paris even though they reject both the Paris and Geneva groups as being an integral part of the corrupt system that they are revolting against. They see Geneva as speaking for the regime and the Paris group as more interested in gaining power at their expense.They also play down the importance of the Jihadi element and see themselves in opposition to them after the fall of the regime. They are however exasperated that after two years while the revolution is gaining ground in Syria, it is losing the communications battle on the international level. This certainly affects the support they get and is to the advantage of the regime, thus prolonging the tragedy.

About the author

Nadim Shehadi is an associate fellow of Chatham House, and an academic visitor at St Antony's College, Oxford.